Monday, October 05, 2015

Killing Clean Elections

“What a tangled web we weave when once we practice to deceive” – Sir Walter Scott

If a suit filed by the Democratic State Central Committee in Hartford Superior Court in answer to previous suit filed by the State Elections Enforcement Commission (SEEC) is upheld, Connecticut’s clean election law will have been judicially repealed. Under such circumstance, the Friends of Clean Elections in the General Assembly – assuming anyone holding elective office is a friend of clean elections in Connecticut – will have no choice but to repeal the law or, as seems more likely, gut and fillet it.

The clean election law, passed after the corruption trial of former Governor John Rowland, established a non-permeable wall between politicians running for election and the businesses and political entities they sometimes oversee, but an ad supporting Governor Dannel Malloy’s recent re-election bid appeared to permeate the wall. The Malloy re-election ad contained a line – “small print,” as a cautious lawyer might say -- that advised voters when polls would be open.

The ad having passed under the sniffer of Jerry Labriola, the former Republican Party Chairman smelled something fishy. No one disputes that the campaign notice clearly breached Connecticut’s clean election law. Mr. Labriola filed a complaint with the SEEC, which ruled in his favor. Although the law had been breached, the Democratic State Central Committee argued, the breach was permissible because state law does not supersede federal law, which allows money to pass unimpeded from a federal account to Mr. Malloy if, as in the case under review, the ad contains a small print notice that transforms the political mailer into an acceptable form allowed under the superseding federal law.

If that gobbledygook seems confusing to the Friends of Honest Elections in Connecticut – none of whom will have any difficulty recognizing the offending ad as a Malloy campaign election document that contains a “small print” fig leaf -- the confusion is the lawyerly result of an attempt to deceive. See Mr. Scott’s often quoted refrain on deception above: Deception always involves tangled webs supported by rooms full of lawyers, about whom Shakespeare’s Dick the Butcher once said, “First thing we do [after seizing power], let’s kill all the lawyers.”

Forrest Gump would have had no difficulty calling the Malloy election ad an impermissible affront to Connecticut’s clean election law. The only open question is: Will Connecticut courts allow the imposture and by so doing toss the state’s clean election law on the ashbin of history?

In defending the SEEC ruling, attorney General George Jepsen finds himself on the side of the clean election law angels. Or, to be more precise, the lawyer assigned by Mr. Jepsen to defend the SEEC judgement, is on the side of good governance. Mr. Jepsen has recused himself from the case because he had been early in his career the Chairman of the State Democratic Party, a clear conflict of interest. The attorney general’s office is notorious for keeping cases bouncing on the litigation road, always paved with good intentions, until years in the future indigent defendants drop from exhaustion and perish in the courts. One expects the case to drag on and on and on, to be settled, in the absence of a judge who insists on moving the case quickly to a just resolution, sometime in the next century.

It is sweetly ironic that “conflict of interest” will itself be on trial in Connecticut’s Superior Court; the purpose of the clean election law, it will be recalled, was to slay the conflict of interest dragon.

And here we are. By far the best review of the tortuous details surrounding the rival suits may be found in Courant investigative reporter Jon Lender's account here

We are here because Mr. Malloy wanted to put a bag around Connecticut’s clean election law and hang it from the nearest tree. As Governor of Connecticut, Mr. Malloy easily could have observed his own state’s clean election law and produced two mailers: one a political re-election pamphlet, and the other a manual instructing inattentive voters how to find their polling places. But the devil of greed and unrestrained power wormed its way into Mr. Malloy’s receptive heart, and so here we are – in court batting legal ping pong balls back and forth across a judicial table before Connecticut’s politically compromised judges. And despite Mr. Jepsen’s disclaimer, the legal case seems stacked in favor of the Democratic Party’s Governor because employees of the former Chairman of the Democratic Party, Mr. Jepsen, should not be directing a case filed against the Democratic State Central Committee.

The last thing Mr. Malloy, an autocratic head of a single party state, needs is a functioning clean election law that cannot be skirted by former prosecutors such as Mr. Malloy, attorneys general who once were Chairmen of the Democratic Party and, should the case ever reach Connecticut’s Supreme Court, newly appointed Supreme Court Justice Andrew McDonald, once the co-chair with Mike Lawlor of the Democratic controlled Judiciary Committee. There is enough political heft among all these people to choke a horse, and ethics laws are fragile butterflies.
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